On August 19, 2003, a massive truck bomb exploded inside the compound of the UN headquarters of the Canal Hotel in Baghdad. Twenty-one people lost their lives. The most prominent among them, the Special Representative of the Secretary General to Iraq and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello, an impossibly handsome and charismatic 55-year-old Brazilian career diplomat, who, during his 34-year career with the United Nations, had served in Geneva, Bangladesh, Sudan, Cyprus, Mozambique, Peru, Lebanon, Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor, Kosovo and New York. But, after the building collapsed on him, rather than dying immediately, Sergio remained conscious for several hours entombed in the rubble that had once been his 3rd-story office.
After Sergio’s death, the film’s director, Greg Barker ( Ghosts of Rwanda ), visited his friend, social activist and academic, Samantha Power, a longtime friend of Vieira de Mello’s, who was in the process of writing his biography, Chasing the Flame. Based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Sergio recounts the story of Vieira de Mello’s idyllic childhood in Rio de Janeiro, the forging of his political and social consciousness during the Paris strikes of 1968, his notorious womanizing and his illustriously contributive life, intercut--in spellbindingly horrific detail--with his final hours. The heartbreak the viewer feels at the incalculable waste of this exceptional humanitarian remains long after the lights come up. My hunch is that the doc will win a well-deserved Sundance award and, with a little luck, earn an eventual Academy Award nomination, which would help draw the audience it unquestionably deserves.
Sometimes described as a cross between James Bond and Bobby Kennedy, Vieira de Mello devoted his life to alleviating the suffering he encountered in his work among the world’s poorest and most defenseless peoples of the world. What may be most impressive about him, however, is the fact that, as his friend Richard Holbrook (the Assistant Secretary of State under Clinton) put it, “He had a fascination with evil genius”--such as the Khmer Rouge, with which he met--at great personal risk to himself--in order to secure repatriation for thousands of displaced Cambodians. His gift was that he listened to what people said they needed, rather than telling them what he thought they needed.
Every good story needs both a love interest and heroes. Carolina Larriera, a beautiful young Argentine woman Sergio had met in East Timor and his fiancée at the time of his death, provides the former. A fire chief and fireman-paramedic, William von Zehle and Andre Valentine, respectively, who were at the time serving in the Army reserves in Baghdad, assumed the role of heroes during their harrowing rescue attempt of Sergio. I’ve never been a fan of documentary reenactments--they’re so easy to do poorly--but Barker pulls them off with assurance and credibility. This fact, I believe, owes a great deal to von Zehle and Valentine’s willingness to portray themselves in the claustrophobic rescue operation.
The ultimate (and unforgivable) irony in Sergio’s fate is that, from the beginning, he’d opposed the war. George W. Bush, Kofi Annan, Tony Blair and Condoleeza Rice convinced him that he was the man who could best set about trying to end the occupation of Iraq as soon as possible (it wasn’t long, however, until it became clear to him that the whole point of the invasion was occupation). He hadn’t wanted to go and instead dreamed of returning to Brazil with Carolina and starting a second family. The profound tragedy remains that, as thoroughly as the Bush regime bungled the invasion of Iraq--on every level--their incompetence directly affected Sergio’s death. As von Zehle and Valentine report, because of the paucity of useful implements and necessary equipment, they were reduced to removing the bricks and rubble atop Sergio’s body by using a woman’s over-sized purse and string as a pulley. What a sickening metaphor for an administration’s failure of imagination and responsibility.
But, as tragic as his death was, the film celebrates the indomitable spirit, dignity and resilience of Sergio Vieira de Mello.
HBO Documentary Films
Cast: Samantha Power, Carolina Larriera, William von Zehle, Andre Valentine, Gil Loescher, Richard Holbrooke, Tony Blair and Condoleeza Rice
Director: Greg Barker
Producers: John Battsek, Greg Barker and Julie Goldman
Running time: 94 min.
Release date: Unset